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PAPERNET: Some Incoherent Thoughts

I just want to get these down in some kind of order for later consideration. See previously: Papernet: Papercamp announcement: Papercamp 1.0.

As noted previously, my interest in this revolves around making printers spit out sheets of paper with interesting things to look at and read on them. This all stems from Aaron Cope’s 2007 talk on the Papernet, and Schulze & Webb’s 2006 "social letterbox."

It occurs to me that the social letterbox isn’t a device, not in the first instance. Because there isn’t a social letterbox device and software bundle, and wishing ain’t going to make it so. In the first instance, the social letterbox is a dedicated email address and a printer you never uncouple from the computer (because you’ve got a USB hub, or, like me, you’re too lazy).

The social letterbox may just be as simple, in the first instance, as a dedicated Gmail account, where I can just press Print without opening the attached document. In kicking this around within a Secret Society, my friend Alasdair Watson knocked together a proof-of-concept in an hour — email comes in, paper comes out. Automagically, like a podcast that spits out paper.

I wouldn’t want the word "papercast" to get out in the wild, you understand. It’s horrible, and it would hang around my neck like a burning tyre until I die. Alasdair notes:

I love the idea of being able to get up in the morning and have the overnight reading ready for me to hop on the bus with. Hell, even if I don’t ever make the mailbox public, all I have to do is lash it to some RSS-to-email functionality, and presto – a custom POD newspaper every morning.

How is that a bad idea? It’s not like a fax machine, where some bastard buys your number and there’s a sheaf of junk hanging out of the thing in the morning. It’s roll-your-own one-sheet POD. And it’s also subscription-based POD, if you know someone who semi-regularly does interesting things with a sheet of paper and decides to share. They’re either sending directly to your letterbox-email, or you’re on an announcement-only mailing list (or Google Group). Or, as I say, as simple as me pressing Print so they’re spat out for me to take to the pub, or on a train journey. And if they’re not especially personal, I can just leave the buggers on the table or the seat when I’m done with them, too.

I remember, years ago, the artist Laurenn McCubbin saying to me, "I can design the shit out of a piece of paper. But designing websites and stuff? Forget it." And you know she’s not going to be the only one. But this papernet thing can in fact be about designing the shit out of a piece of paper.

This is getting tl;dr, but this is starting to tie up in my head with the emerging notion that this might be the Year Of POD, that not everyone wants nothing but plaintext in their lives, not everyone has a mobile device that does everything they want, and that, sometimes, paper is better.

I shut up now.

Published in brainjuice


  1. Hello

    This sounds a lot like what Nicholas Negreponte talks about in his book ‘Being Digital’, which I guess is very old now. The weather comes in as information and you choose to consume it how you want, be that in a cartoon, printout, read aloud, website etc etc

    You could choose paper

    Either that or I’ve missed the point of your post :)

    I’m sure a lot of people know of it but its worth checking out if not. That little beauty got me through university!

  2. Even if it’s not the ‘social letterbox’ there’s room for this to incorporate blogs distributing PDFzines… although a friend I pitched that to remarked immediately that it’s too much effort for most people.

    “And if they’re not especially personal, I can just leave the buggers on the table or the seat when I’m done with them, too.”

    – which is the beauty of the things. Information as art and artefact, spreading like a virus. It’s not just about paper spitting out text, but the design element that comes into it too: greyscale artworks or photo-quality prints in your hands instead of the Metro.

    Of course, we’ve got to make them first.

  3. I’m tempted to respond more windily, but:

    * Paper is expensive, over and over, for the value. It’s made of trees.
    * Printer manufacturers — I mean ink & toner vendors — will own your soul.
    * Buying a crappy mobile device you can read on is only semi-expensive, once.
    * They’re going to keep getting cheaper and easier to use.
    * The number of people who can ONLY design the shit out of a piece of paper is small/dwindling, and frankly, get with it, people.

  4. My first impressions on this seems to be this is how we (the “wired/online” folk) can narrow the technology gap between those of us who can afford a basic box and connection, and those who are still left behind on the Information Superhighway – If this was a few hundred years ago, this would be the fella with access to a movable type printing press and a wild-ass idea that folks can come to his shop and hand over Content for printing and distribution.

    Also, I think if there indeed is a “social letterbox”, I think that letterbox would get full quickly (just look at one’s blog lists, how cluttered is that?), so somewhere along the line there should be a program that parses headings from a list and creates a Table of Contents To Be Printed, that can be selected before printing. Maybe creates a newspaper-like front page with headlines and a few lines, and the body of the text is printed elsewhere in the finished product.

    That’s all I got, and I’m only on my second pint of Newcastle….

  5. I think that it would mean you become a lot more discriminating about the ‘casts that you sign up for – As Dan has previously commented printing stuff is expensive in both cost and environmental terms (perhaps not on the scale of free newspapers, but the cost to *you* is more).

    So you would only sign up for the one or two *special* casts rather than the half a hundred RSS feeds that I have signed up to on a whim.

    To be honest, I see paper as creating an ‘artifact’ rather than just a way of getting info out there, making something disposable for me just means something else to fill up my bin when I’m done with it.

    Now – books or comics that read better on paper and might want to be kept would be something else, but how much would a decent repo of that cost?

  6. Lazlo Panaflex Lazlo Panaflex

    I just finished listening to the CBC (just like the BBC but from the great white north) podcast “Spark” in which Nora Young interviews Ben Terrett (
    What Mr. Terrett did was take a bunch of blog articles and print them in the form of a newspaper. He called it “Things Our Friends Have Written On The Internet”
    I thought it was an interesting concept and was gonna comment on the unicorn stabbing sci-fi magazines post but then i saw this one and switched my focus.
    The thought of having a custom saturday morning newspaper filled with all the blogs i subscribed to is very appealing.

  7. Andrew Andrew

    The “artifact” part of this experiment’s got to be the point, because otherwise it’s just sentimental resource-wasting. I mean, you want something to read *later in the same day*? That’s exactly the reason *not* to put it on paper. If you want to read it later today just leave the damn browser window open or email it to your iPhone or something.

    “Things our friends have written on the internet” actually has a purpose as an artifact. It’s a curated printed souvenir of the year that I’ll look back at in two or three years, and will probably enjoy that it’s yellowed and faded a bit.

  8. This reminds me a little of Steampunk Magazine ( They do the magazine as a pdf in a number of formats, including an imposed format, so you can print it off at home, fold it in two and staple. Combine that with a list-server… You’re getting close.

  9. […] have been kicking around this idea of a papernet (in brief: internet content in an auto-printed form) with a few folks. I’m currently building […]

  10. Some thoughts I posted here:

    All this got my brain cylinders firing. As intriguing as the concept of a social letter box and micro print on demand is, my initial vision upon hearing the word “papernet” wasn’t just of a box that spurts out paper from a computer. It was something much larger than that, although I can see how the micro POD could play a part in the larger picture. No, what I envisioned was this…

    Pieces of paper interconnected creating a vast network of information in what is essentially a low tech paper and ink version of the internet. A steampunk version of the world wide web.

    More than just a library (although a library could certainly serve as an information hub) this network exists as the result of each piece of paper linking to another, whether it is through the binding formatting a stack of individual pages into a codex, or footnotes or a bibliography linking to other works, or other forms of recommendations. We see this in comics through letters pages, and editorial comments, and in-story footnotes referencing earlier issues of the serial format itself. We can even see this in music via insert pamphlets archiving lyrics, and photos and other related art and articles.

    The key element here in the forming of a papernet (according to my thought process), is the linking of one piece of paper containing information, to another.

    Not only does this papernet exist in the real world as paper and ink artifacts, if Internet 2 were to become a reality and net neutrality were lost, perhaps it is this papernet that would fill the gap to become the replacement. What was old becomes new again.

  11. Sorry to chime in a bit late, but we were in a quiet period when this post went out.

    My project, Printcasting ( is now is open beta, and it does a lot of what you’re talking about. Our focus is not really on the “personalized newspaper” angle, although it can be used for that. Our real purpose is to democratize print publishing. Our site lets anyone register their blog (or anything with a full-contents RSS feed) and use it to create an automatically-updating PDF magazine which others can subscribe to receive by e-mail when a new edition is available.

    We plan to integrate Print on Demand services in the future (still looking for someone like Magcloud or Lulu to offer an API for that — if anyone knows of a service that offers this now, let me know!)

    By this summer, it will also include ad revenue-sharing so that bloggers receive a portion of ad revenue going through the network every few months, in proportion to how often their content is used by citizen publishers.

    Our project is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, via the Knight News Challenge ( The purpose of the News Challenge is to find new ways for local, geographic communities to share news and information. As such, we’re focusing our marketing on a city-by-city basis, beginning with Bakersfield, California. We plan to target additional cities through the summer.

    I welcome any of you to test out our service, and help us make it better through your feedback. We have a whole community site for people like that, which you can find at

    -Dan Pacheco, Founder,

  12. […] Versatile devices, the diary and calendar are made of processed plant cells in the form of thin sheets manufactured from the pulp of wood or other fibrous material… what we call paper. Used in tandem with digital planning tools, the Calendar and Diary make up something we might think of as being akin to the idea of the ‘papernet’. […]

  13. WOW, this’ll keep me busy for years. I’ve been subscribing to your RSS feed for months, but somehow I missed this great list.

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